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Catlin Powers: An "Unreasonable" Return to Semester at Sea

Catlin Powers tests out her company’s revolutionary solar cooker on deck 7.

When you first meet Catlin Powers, one of our on-board Unreasonable at Sea entrepreneurs, it’s easy to see what a remarkable social innovator she is. She has a brilliant mind, a compassionate heart, and a smile that can light up a room. As a PhD student at Harvard University and the co-founder of One Earth Designs, Catlin is impacting people across the globe with her revolutionary ideas about solar technology. When she tells you about her decision to drop out of Wellesley College during her sophomore year to live with nomadic tribes in the Himalayan plateau, it doesn’t sound all that surprising. It’s the type of thing Catlin would do. But what did surprise many of us on-board, weeks after meeting her here on the ship, was that this isn’t her first voyage with Semester at Sea.

Catlin grew up as the daughter of two globe-trekking parents whose academic careers and curiosities led them all over the world. Before the age of ten, she had already spent time living in fourteen counties, adding on another twenty countries during the second decade of her life. In the fall of 2001, her parents both accepted positions as faculty members on Semester at Sea, with her mother teaching global education, and her father teaching sociology. For Catlin, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. Despite being only 14-years-old at the time, she attended as many classes as she could, soaking up the learning experience along with the college students. She took African dance, became involved in the local landless movement in Brazil, and even managed to end up with one of the highest scores on the final exam in the ship-wide Global Studies class.

Gaining exposure at such a young age to the challenges facing communities around the world, while also grappling with the global reactions to the September 11th attacks (which happened while she was on board), helped cement Catlin’s determination to dedicate her life to social change. “I came out of that experience feeling very motivated to be part of a force to bring people together,” she said, “And to actively try to build up a better way for humans to be living.”

So far she’s off to a great start. In 2010, Catlin and her co-founder, Scott Frank, launched their social enterprise, One Earth Designs, to tackle the growing challenge of providing clean energy to the developing world. Their flagship product, one of the most efficient solar cookers on the planet, caught the attention of Unreasonable at Sea and gave Catlin the opportunity to return to her Semester at Sea roots, this time as an on-board entrepreneur. “It’s amazing to be here with companies from Botswana and Sweden and India, and so many places around the world, at so many stages of their company’s development,” Catlin said. “I feel as though I’m learning tons everyday from that, by seeing our companies through each others’ eyes.”

Catlin’s return to Semester at Sea, nearly 12 years after her first voyage, is only one of many similar stories in which participants who have sailed before find themselves drawn back to the program later in life. On our current voyage we have several faculty and staff members who sailed decades ago as students, lifelong learners who have been on board multiple times before, and students who are already scheming how to come back. Even Catlin’s parents still harbor dreams of returning one day to Semester at Sea. “They wish they could come with me!,” she said. It’s not unlikely that their wish might become a reality, as it did for Catlin, because Semester at Sea seems to have a magnetic pull, inspiring so many past voyagers to come back “home” again.

Check out this video of Catlin showing her solar cooker to children during our time in Hilo, Hawaii:

Photo by Minh Cuong Le Quan, Prakti Design

  • Life on Land

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